Criterion Sunday 569: Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday, 1930)

A lovely silent film, somewhat akin to a city symphony documentary but with elements of narrative drama, it opens expressively with shots of Berlin (the hustle and bustle of the city, people at work on a Friday) along with vignettes depicting various peoples’ lives, such that it’s not immediately clear when the written portions of the film start (though Billy Wilder is given writing credit up front). Still, once our (anti?)-hero Wolfgang is seen chatting up a young woman called Christl, it becomes clear this isn’t quite a documentary. At length a plot develops whereby Wolfgang and his friend Erwin head to the Wannsee lake and Wolfgang soon gets flirtatious with Christl’s friend Brigitte, much to the former’s annoyance. Throughout the film remains focused on its milieu, frequently showing us the faces of those around our central characters, giving expression to both a time and a place in history. The film thus provides a vivid sense of (middle-class and working) life prior to the Nazis in Germany, a sort of carefree modern life that can’t help but be imbued with poignancy given what we know.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer; Writers Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak and Curt Siodmak; Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan; Starring Wolfgang von Waltershausen, Brigitte Borchert; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 11 September 2022.

Criterion Sunday 563: Something Wild (1986)

I can only assume there’s an element of nostalgia to the way people view this film. It’s good fun, for sure, and perhaps setting it against much of what passed for mainstream entertainment in the 1980s is enough to rate it highly. I can respect that, but this feels like a messy film. It’s certainly a film about messy people living their lives, and that’s going to get messy, but just structurally there are plenty of longueurs where the film feels aimless, the way Charlie is trying to put his life together, or Audrey/Lulu is trying to figure out her identity. All I know is that Ray Liotta adds a necessary element of danger to a story that could easily get bogged down in new wave 80s quirkiness, like its angular soundtrack (which is nevertheless pretty solid). There’s a sense in which these characters feel like a throwback, and Melanie Griffith is somehow both iconic — a manic pixie dream girl avant la lettre — and deserves a better written character, but she knows exactly how to pitch herself against Jeff Daniels’s rather dull NYC corporate salary man. It’s a bold, colourful film brimming with ideas, not all of which work, but I’m glad Demme found an outlet for them.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jonathan Demme; Writer E. Max Frye; Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto; Starring Melanie Griffith, Jeff Daniels, Ray Liotta; Length 113 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 24 August 2022.

Criterion Sunday 549: The Last Picture Show (1971)

A classic, if not the defining, film of the sad people in a sad small town feeling sad at the fleetingness of all things and at their sad, uneventful futures in the dead end of the American Dream genre, which to be fair is a reasonably well-worn one. But I’d not seen this film before, and director Peter Bogdanovich is sensible to keep his focus on the actors and on Larry McMurtry’s script (based on his own youthful experiences I gather, and shot in the small Texas town he grew up in). All these different actors, whether new youthful faces like Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd and Timothy Bottoms (and even Randy Quaid) all hit their marks perfectly, but in a sense this is even more a film for Eileen Brennan and Ellen Burstyn and Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson, as the older generation who have clearly already lived the lives these teenage kids are going through and who convey an immense amount of pathos. The script is certainly on point with its metaphors, but it wouldn’t matter much were it not for the tightly controlled performances of the leads, underscored by the monochrome cinematography and crumbling small town set design.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Larry McMurtry and Bogdanovich (based on McMurtry’s novel); Cinematographer Robert Surtees; Starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman, Ellen Burstyn, Ben Johnson, Eileen Brennan; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 July 2022.

Criterion Sunday 546: Five Easy Pieces (1970)

As a seminal film in the ‘New American cinema’ movement, moving away from the Hollywood studio system, and a key piece in Jack Nicholson’s filmography, I must say that I like but don’t love Five Easy Pieces. It tells the story of Bobby Dupea, a man who seems pretty desperate to get away from himself, from his well-educated upper-class (for America) background, a world of conservatories and piano prodigies at a youthful age (which is what Bobby once was). Quite what he’s looking for is the drama of the film, though: some kind of pure and authentic expression of being American, perhaps, though most of the time it seems like he’s just running with no clear goal, lashing out at those who love him and constantly cheating on his girlfriend (Karen Black). It’s a great performance from Nicholson, but it’s not an easy one to love, given how rough around the edges he is, though it feels somehow quintessentially American. I can certainly understand how it hooks people in, but watching it I feel more like one of the pseuds that Bobby is so angry at all the time.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bob Rafelson; Writers Carole Eastman [as “Adrien Joyce”] and Rafelson; Cinematographer László Kovács; Starring Jack Nicholson, Karen Black, Susan Anspach; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 29 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 542: Antichrist (2009)

I know that Lars von Trier wants us to hate his movies, because he wants us to have that authentic visceral reaction to them, whether it be love or hate. That seems fairly clear both from his pronouncements as from the films themselves, and therefore I want to respond by saying I found his film — surely one of the films that most potently distils everything that he wants to assault the viewer with — as merely middling. However, I cannot lie: I disliked it a lot. Not that it wasn’t acted with great power by both Gainsbourg and Dafoe, who are pretty much the only humans we see for much of the film (aside from their infant son who dies in the prologue and whose death hangs over the entire psychodramatic dynamic that ensues). Not that it wasn’t filmed with customary elegance by Anthony Dod Mantle. Not that there weren’t elements that worked well and could be appreciated. But just that constant assault of images and ideas that serve no purpose other than to evoke grand emotions. Well, I’m glad people can embrace those and I don’t doubt that it’s all very intentionally done. I could dispassionately render a critique on its artistry. But I feel like a more honest response — and perhaps the one that Trier would prefer — is just: f*ck that guy. I didn’t hate his film, and maybe even one day I can come to it with understanding, but I don’t have to watch it again, and I’m glad about that.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Lars von Trier; Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle; Starring Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 18 June 2022.

Criterion Sunday 522: Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964)

This may be Antonioni’s most inscrutable film for me, and watching it again I get the feeling that it may be one I need to see on the big screen to get into. Certainly I am always in awe of Antonioni’s control over framing and the way he places people within landscapes, moving through and weaving into and out of the frame, dominated often by buildings, here enormous crumbling industrial edifices belching smoke into the sky. Monica Vitti is suitably totemic herself, entering and exiting in a green coat, these block colours (green, red, blue, yellow) setting themselves off from the dull grey of the rest of the landscapes we see. It’s a film about industry in a sense, and about the modern world, but it’s never so straightforward as to have a plot exactly. There’s Vitti and then there’s Richard Harris’s character Corrado, and there’s a relationship of sorts between them, but quite what it all means is never discussed, quite where it’s all going is never clear, if there’s a start and an end these feel fairly arbitrary, because what we mostly have here is the movement and the deserted atmosphere evoked by the title.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma; Starring Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998).

Criterion Sunday 520: Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick (Everlasting Moments, 2008)

There are a number of Jan Troell films in the Criterion Collection and this just happens to be the first of those titles to have been put out by them, but despite having constructed myself a rigorous schedule by which to watch them in order (two every Sunday, as you should know by now!), I still managed to put off this one because it sounded boring. In a sense, it is what I thought it would be — a slow, elegiac ode to a lost personal history — but it also stays clear of being boring by having some fine performances, anchored in a history that feels close to Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (a high bar), while also somehow being a film reflecting on what it is to be a journeyman artist. Our lead character Maria (played by Maria Heiskanen over a period of years) is seen from her youth through to old age, dealing with a moody husband and an increasing number of children while also occasionally showing some interest in photography. It’s a film that’s about the past enough that it looks like an old film, all sepia tones and earthy colours, but it’s the complexity in the characters and the way that what might become simple moral stories become more layered and complex, as Maria becomes stronger in herself but never quite does what people expect. It’s a very handsome movie, and that’s a fine thing, almost a lost art itself.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jan Troell; Writers Niklas Rådström, Troell and Agneta Ulfsäter-Troell; Cinematographers Troell and Mischa Gavrjusjov; Starring Maria Heiskanen, Mikael Persbrandt, Jesper Christensen; Length 131 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 28 May 2022.

Criterion Sunday 514: Ride with the Devil (1999)

I’m not sure if Tobey Maguire, Skeet Ulrich and Jewel (the singer) counted as big stars back in 1999, but I suspect they may have had a greater lustre to them at the very least. In retrospect, though the casting is solid, their faded celebrity is perhaps now more appropriate to the Confederate bushwhackers they play: basically kids trying to mount a guerrilla offensive that starts out rooted in family but increasingly becomes a brazen attempt to profit by any means. This movement into banditry is where Jonathan Rhys Meyers’s slippery, traitorous character comes into his own. None of them are exactly people you want to root for, but Maguire and Jewel at least bring something a little bit empathetic, given their youth and evident inexperience at war. Of course, the real emotional centre of the film is Jeffrey Wright’s ex-slave, fighting on the side of the Confederates out of loyalty to his former master (a relatively brief appearance for Australian actor Simon Baker). There’s nothing particularly gung ho or patriotic about this film — it tells the story of a group of people caught up in events much bigger than them and which frequently seem too large even for this (fairly lengthy) film. In the end Lee is far more interested in the time between the battles and the effects of war than in mounting big combat scenes, and this is all the stronger a film for that.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • On a disc fairly light on bonus features, one of the main extras is a 15-minute video interview with Jeffrey Wright some years later, as he reflects on his role and the place of African-Americans in the forces of the Confederacy, which is needless to say a fraught and nuanced subject.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Ang Lee 李安; Writer James Schamus (based on the novel Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell); Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Tobey Maguire, Jewel, Jeffrey Wright, Skeet Ulrich, Simon Baker, Jonathan Rhys Meyers; Length 148 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 12 March 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, August 2001).

Criterion Sunday 509: Ossos (1997)

I can’t fully pretend to be able to tell apart the characters in this film by Pedro Costa, which kicks off his so-called Fontainhas trilogy (being the films set in the downmarket area of Lisbon where migrants from former colonies have tended to cluster together). Nor am I entirely sure of their relationships to one another. However, Costa’s filmmaking is absolutely clear in finding perfect images to capture the essence of this neighbourhood and of the squalor in which the characters live. Not quite dim and unlit as his later films, there’s still a palpable sense of chiaroscuro to the contrasts in these interiors, as characters with equally murky intentions move through them (a young mother, a feckless father, some others who are trying to do good to little avail). Every shot here has a careful and palpable beauty to it, even as the characters themselves seem unable to express themselves and keep trying to find a way out of a certain sense of hopelessness. It feels like a move towards his modern style of filmmaking.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pedro Costa; Cinematographer Emmanuel Machuel; Starring Vanda Duarte, Nuno Vaz; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 20 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 506: Dillinger è morto (Dillinger Is Dead, 1969)

I watched this a week ago and it’s lucky that it stays with me because I completely forgot to write it up at the time. In a way it’s like a movie perfectly suited to our pandemic times, albeit made decades ago. Our lead character is, of all things, a designer of gas masks (Michel Piccoli) — and certainly the question of living our lives in masks comes up, along with a sense of alienation that grows from that. He comes home to his wife (Anita Pallenberg), but his dissatisfaction is evident in both her and the meal that’s waiting for him, so he starts to cook another. Things move on from there, but the film is an accretion of details in a vaguely absurdist style that heightens his sense of disconnectedness from the world, and the revolver he finds wrapped up in newspaper clippings about the titular Chicago gangster only fuels that sense of disappointment with life. I suppose it could be said to satirically represent a man’s desire for a new life, even if it ultimately feels very masculine in the way he believes he can move out of his present circumstances (there’s a lot of performatively macho swaggering, and Piccoli bears his hairy chest once again after Le Mépris a few years earlier). There are certainly some ideas here that feel prescient, and a claustrophobic sense of space and time as he moves around his apartment, though I found it stylistically very much of its era in a way that was difficult to fully embrace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marco Ferreri; Writers Ferreri and Sergio Bazzini; Cinematographer Mario Vulpiani; Starring Michel Piccoli, Anita Pallenberg, Annie Girardot; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 10 February 2022.